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Are County Commissioners Being Given A Chance To Be Part Of The Local Decision Making Process?

Matt Pierce-Briscoe

Corpus Christi -- Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales is facing strong questions over her management of the COVID-19 crisis here locally. While people have been concerned about Canales' management style from day one of the crisis, at least one county commissioner is getting concerned at the lack of inclusion and input from members of the commissioners court.

Nueces County Commissioner Carolyn Vaughn said on Wednesday that she is requesting an item to be put on the agenda for the next Commissioners Court meeting that would allow for public input and provide a forum for county commissioners to voice their opinions and concerns. The item would also help commissioners better understand Judge Canales decision making process.

“We have not been included in the decision making process,” says Commissioner Vaughn. “If we want information we can either attend or call into the EOC meetings which is very helpful. I would prefer a weekly update from the judge to the commissioners."

"I don’t want citizens to get the wrong impression that I agree with all decisions being made," Vaughn says. "I might agree with all of them or not , if I knew what criteria and info she received,who she consulted with to decide."

Vaughn says that she can only speak for herself and she isn’t contacted or asked for her opinion as to when orders are extended and doesn't believe the others are contacted either.

"I believe since it affects the entire county and our precinct we should be consulted on the impact extensions have on the community," Vaughn told us Wednesday morning.

In a follow-up call Wednesday morning, Judge Canales told us that she in fact has been communicating with the commissioners and passing information along to them on a regular basis.

“We have come a long way here and I have been communicating with them daily,” Judge Canales told us in her call. “I get the information and we put it out there.”

But that is not what the point of order is here with the story. The heart of the matter is that Vaughn and many county residents feel like they are not getting their fair say of in the decision-making process. That has many people up in arms.

People like Mark Gaines who lives here in Corpus Christi. Gaines says that since this is not a hurricane or other natural disaster, there should be a chance for us to have our voices heard in the matter.

“Look man, if there were split second decisions being made like during a hurricane then I could see it,” Gaines says. “But here we have days and days between most critical decisions about things like closing beaches, issuing stay-at-home orders and such. Damn right we should have our say and that is why we have elected commissioners, city council members and state lawmakers for.”

Gaines, who was spending his afternoon waiting in line at H-E-B said that he does not feel like there is much listening going on.

“I watch that press conference religiously and all I hear is a bunch of people talking about what they did and giving out numbers,” he says. “Why not spend a little more time listening to the people. You have time for that.”

But Judge Canales says that she is listening and acting well within her authority.

“I am here to make these executive decisions,” Judge Canales said. “The State Legislature in all of their infinite wisdom passed that law many sessions ago. I am just doing what I have to do.”

Judge Canales points to examples of how she is listening to commissioners and the people that elected her to the job.

“I take these things very seriously,” she told us Wednesday morning. “I spoke with Commissioner Chesney about closing the beaches and he disagreed with me, but we did talk about it before I made that decision.”

There is not any doubt that Judge Canales has a very difficult job and is making some decisions that none of us can say we would be totally prepared to make. Drawing off experienced counsel in a situation like this is key and Judge Canales points out how she is getting data from health officials, the Department of State Health Services and academia to make her decisions. But as we have seen played out before our very eyes here in Texas, the people still want their opinion to matter.

Judge Canales is right that the state legislature did give county judges the right to be the chief emergency manager at the county level during times of disaster and emergency. But with that privilege comes responsibility and the rights to hold those keys can easily be restricted.

Just last week we saw Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins have some of his decision-making authority limited by Dallas County Commissioners.

An example of that is that Jenkins must notify all four of the Dallas County Commissioners about certain decisions and allow them to meet before placing any more restrictions on essential businesses. They also required him to get a majority vote before extending his shelter-in-place order past April 30.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price argued that if a County Judge can confer with 250 people every day, or every other day, then they can confer with commissioners.

We reached out to Dallas County Commissioner Price to learn about what led to them taking such drastic action. Price said that it was many of the same concerns that we are hearing down here.

In fact, a spokesperson for the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) said that the same argument is being heard from around the state. Their advice is that county judges should build more bridges with their commissioners and their constituents.

Commissioner Vaughn points out how such a move is not out of the realm of possibility but would only be brought up if necessary.

“I would only suggest that as a last resort,” said Vaughn. “I would only consider it if we felt like she (Judge Canales) was abusing her privilege.”

Commissioner Vaughn does not feel like we are anywhere close to such a drastic measure – yet.

Vaughn does point out however that for at least the first two weeks, communications with commissioners was limited, at best. She is quick to point out that it was only after a memo was sent out to Judge Canales began communicating at least somewhat consistently with commissioners.

"We are in this together so what we and the citizens think should  matter and be expressed, we represent them," Commissioner Vaughn said.

But if there is a concern with how Judge Canales is communicating with her commissioners, one would ask how the communications lines have been with the state leadership?

We checked in with State Senator Chuy Hinojosa for his take on how the communication is going.

“She communicates with me constantly,” Senator Hinojosa told us Wednesday afternoon. “As you know we have been overdosed with conference calls, but she does communicate with me constantly about everything.”

Senator Hinojosa says that Judge Canales has been effective in seeking his guidance throughout this crisis and he pointed out repeatedly how she is “on top of it.” He also points out as to how the world has changed right before our eyes and how even from the State Senate level, they are feeling the pinch.

“She has a tough job,” Senator Hinojosa told us. “We are all just trying to do the best we can here.”

While most anybody would agree that every team needs a quarterback, what it seems like folks here in Nueces County are looking for is a head coach, not just a shot caller.

“I told Judge Canales that we used to be a team and I miss how we used to could work together,” Commissioner Vaughn says.  "I want to support her decisions and I want to be able to justify her decisions to my constituents. I want to be able to work with her, and I may even be able to support her. We just need to know where she is coming from."

But Vaughn is also quick to give credit where credit is due.

"I think she is doing a good job with the tasks that she has been given," said Vaughn. "In my opinion the judge has followed Governor Abbots orders pretty closely."

“I take this personally and I was hurt when she told me that,” Judge Canales said. “I want us to be a team. We are a team and I am proud of that team.”


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